Buddhist Traffic Lessons

Presented by: 
Paul Vielle

A few days ago, I was on the north side of town, near Audubon Park. I was traveling north on one of the neighborhood side streets and wanted to turn right on to Northwest Blvd. I approached the intersection and pulled up behind a 1980’s-something sedan. I looked to the left and saw a few cars way down the Boulevard. There’s plenty of time make the turn. My view to the right was obscured by hedge row. The car in front of me wasn’t moving. It was just sitting there. I looked closely and saw a gray-haired, elderly woman at the wheel. I could see her face clearly in her side view mirror. She appeared to be quite old, well into her eighties. She wore thick glasses and ...well....she was just sitting there. What’s wrong with her?, I wondered. The traffic is light; way is clear, why doesn’t she turn right? Can’t she see, there’s someone behind her?

In an instant, I surmised her delay was due to her advanced years. After all, one grows more cautious as one grows older. Maybe she was waiting for no cars on the Boulevard before turning right. Worse still, maybe she was having one of those “senior moments” and couldn’t remember whether she had turned off the coffee pot. Worst of all, maybe she had forgotten where she was going and was spooling through various possibilities in her mind.

Whatever.... But, if this old woman didn’t turn right, right now, we’d both have to wait for the next train of cars to pass. I was in a hurry. My impatience flared to anger and I beeped her with my horn. She glanced in her side view mirror. Our eyes met. “Well....?” I gestured. Finally, she started to move, just as a large truck on the opposite lane passed in front of us. The lady crossed the street and continued on her way.

I sat there utterly dismayed and ashamed at my behavior. What came to mind was Bombu, the person of blind passions and ignorance. I had assumed she was turning right, ...because I was turning right! I assumed because she was an old person, she had forgotten to put her turn signal on! Have I learned nothing in my two year study of Buddhism? I purport to be a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, a follower of the Nembutzu, yet I continue to behave in ways that confirm again, and again, I am a creature of blind passions and ignorance. I continue to do things, I don’t want to do; and I don’t do things I know I should. Why is that? For days, this incident (which took place in the interval of 20 seconds), haunted me until I resolved to put down on paper, whatever lessons, if any, I thought it might contain;

So, here then, if you will, are my three Buddhist Traffic Lessons.


1. Because my ignorance is profound and my knowledge is limited; I am bound to err. It cannot be otherwise.

Despite what I’ve read in the writings of Shakyamuni and Shinran, I continue to operate from the delusion of a permanent, enduring ego-self which exists separately from everything else. It’s the old: “I”,“me”, “my” and “mine” of self versus the “not-I” “other stuff out there” mode of thinking. This is dualistic thinking. When we think in this way, we set up expectations about “the stuff out there” We develop cravings, expectations and attachments about the “stuff out there.” We expect things to happen, and people to behave, in certain ways and become angry when they don’t. Similarly, we become upset when pleasurable end. On and on it goes. We make ourselves miserable this way. Shakyamuni articulated this as the second noble truth: the Truth of the Origin of Suffering.

My ignorance is profound. All my negative expectations about this woman were based on nothing more than her advanced age. How unfounded and ill-conceived my criticism.

My knowledge is limited. I could not see the truck barreling toward the intersection.

I am bound to err. I expected her to turn right, because I was turning right.

It cannot be otherwise, because I like you, forget that life is a “bumpy road” (duhkha); full of disappointments, fear and sadness. These bumps cannot be avoided; they are a natural part of our existence. Buddhism describes these bumps as birth, death, being separated from loved ones, not getting what we desire, and being attached to the notion of a being-self.

In short, Ignorance means we forget our true nature which as the Buddha taught, is one of impermanence and interdependence. I certainly forgot that truth as beeped my horn.


2. My second Buddhist Traffic Lesson is “Everything and everyone are my teachers.” Every encounter teaches. Sadly, most of the time we miss what can be learned. Our delusions, prejudices, hatreds, anxieties and fears, obscure the truth of these encounter. For a mere 20 seconds or so, this woman and I were in a relationship. I was a reality in her world; she in mine. What was the truth of this encounter? What did I miss? In this case, I believe that lady was offering me an opportunity to practice patience, to slow-down, and behave kindly. She was reminding me that driving was serious business and that impetuous actions could have disastrous consequences. Finally she offered me a mirror of what I could be in the not too distant future, a really old person. This same scenario could easily play out again, only this time it is my bespeckled hands on the wheel, trying to cross the street safely, amidst the honking of some foolish being behind.

In the larger view, we all learn from the people we encounter, the objects we use, and the things we do. If you follow that line of logic far enough, you arrive at the Buddhist truth that all is One. We are one with all. The Law of Interdependence. I certainly forgot about that, when I beeped my horn.


3. My third Buddhist Traffic Lesson is that Wisdom comes in seeing through my delusions to the questions. Asking the right questions leads to right view. Wrong views lead to narrow and restricted lives. My experience could easily have led to statements like, “Old people really have no business behind the wheel.” “Speed limits are O.K. for ordinary people, but skilled drivers like me should be allowed to drive faster.” How to break out of such dogmatic thinking! How can you see through these delusions to the truth that things are the way they are; without labels, without judgments. You start by cultivating awareness. You do that by asking the right questions. You continually ask, “What am I aware of? What am I learning? Is what I’m doing promoting harmony? What is the meaning of my impatience? How does it arise? Buddhism is all about asking the right questions. In doing so, we stay anchored in the here and now. We’re more apt to be aware of our motivations, more likely to see our deluded thinking. If we can but cultivate mindful awareness, we can begin to notice the cycles of impulsive, thoughtless and automatic behavior and thereby improve the quality of our lives.


I’m such a beginner at this. I know I spend too much time trying to understand what is right. The Four Noble Truths, The Eight Fold path, The four marks of existence, the five precepts....how all this fits together. I forget that in the study Buddhism intellectual understanding can only take you so far. You reach a point where ordinary language, --symbolic language-- just can’t explain some things. At some point, you’re left with the disquieting feeling you don’t understood it at all. This is the point where intellect and reason are left behind, and one simply apprehends the truth in an almost intuitive way.

In that 20 second encounter, that woman helped me to glimpse the Bombu in me. Without words, without rational understanding, I apprehended the depth of my ignorance. And for a brief time afterward, I saw things differently.

Most of us drive along, without a thought to the many lessons available to us while driving, --if we could but see them. But I say, better to receive Three Buddhist Traffic Lessons, that Three Municipal Traffic Tickets. It is always better to be wise than sorry.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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